A Very Brief History of Buttons

Button_collection_displayPat here:

I’m still digging around in research for my current, very tentative, historical idea. I’m thinking the village I talked about last time has lost its inhabitants to industries which pay better than farming small plots. And I’m thinking whatever cottage industry once paid women has also died, so young people packed up and left, and there’s no one left.

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A Tale of Buttons

Anne here, writing about… buttons. These days people hardly even consider buttons, but for a long time in history they were regarded as very special, and today people collect and display antique buttons.
My grandmother used to keep a large button jar.  Not a person given to waste, Nana used to remove the buttons before discarding any item of clothing, saving them for a time when they might be needed, for when Pop lost a shirt button, or when some home made item needed buttons. There were everyday buttons and there were special buttons. Buttons

As a child I loved that button jar. I used to spend hours sorting buttons, organizing them by shape, or size, or color. They evoked special events and mysterious items of clothing. I remember tiny mother-of-pearl buttons, faceted buttons of jet, carved wooden buttons and buttons that sparkled and gleamed. I'd make up stories about them, and of course I had my favorites. I own the button jar now; it's kept for my own pleasure and used at times to entertain visiting children.

Buttons are such everyday items we tend to consider they've been around forever, but while a button might seem to be an obvious thing, for centuries they weren't used as we use them today— to fasten things together. 

Oldbuttons Bronze Age people, ancient Egyptians and other ancient peoples apparently wore buttons carved from horn or bone or seashells, made of clay, or from various metals. Some are round, some have holes, some have shanks. But they were decorative — they rarely fastened anything. They were more like a sew-on-brooch, or a series of sew-on brooches. Occasionally, in some ancient societies, cloaks were held together at the neck with one large button and a loop of thread. But the button as we know it, wasn't in use.

History suggests that the first European buttons and button-hole closure system were found in 13th century Germany.

So how did people fasten their clothes before buttons?

They used belts to hold clothes on — think of the kilt. They folded and wrapped cloth around themselves and pinned it with pins or brooches — think of the toga. They used ties and tapes and laces and eyelets. They used hooks and eyes. Sometimes they simply sewed a person into their clothes, and unpicked them at some future date when it was time for a bath and a change of clothing.

 In Europe the idea of the buttonhole was brought back from the Crusades by returning soldiers. It cause a minor clothing revolution — and a whole raft of new fashions.It is around this time that the word button first appears, possibly from the French bouter (to push) or bouton (bud.)

The French were quick to incorporate this new technique in clothing, and around 1250 the Button Makers Guild was formed — an indication of the growing popularity of buttons. Being highly respected craftsmen, the guild members did not make ordinary buttons for ye average clod to wear — these were finely crafted works of art, the kind of expensive item only the rich could afford, and thus became items that carried status. Laws were passed to restrict commoners to wearing certain kinds of buttons.

There was even a war over buttons in France called la Guerre des Boutons. French tailors started using thread buttons — Buttons made of little balls of thread. This effectively broke the button maker's guild's officially sanctioned monopoly on the manufacture of buttons, so the guild lobbied the government to pass a law against it. The tailors were fined but the guild wanted more: they demanded the authorities search people's homes and inspect their wardrobes. They even wanted people to be arrested and fined for wearing thread buttons. 

According to this site "Europe was so button crazy that even the Church got in on the act and denounced them as 'the devil's snare… Puritans also condemned them as sinful.

During the 16th and 17th century clothes, especially men's clothes, became tighter and more form fitting, and buttons played a strong role in this, allowing garments  to be fastened around the body more closely. They were functional and decorative, used on breeches, waistcoats and coats, but not on shirts. Buttons were rarely used on ladies clothing — for them hooks and laces fastened up the back were still the norm. 

The French have always set the fashion, and buttons were no exception. The early buttons produced were small and decorative, but as they grew more popular, they became larger and more elaborate and the materials more and more precious. The grandest buttons were made of gold inlaid with diamonds, rubies, pearls and other precious gems; these were, of course, for Kings, Queens and the wealthiest of aristocrats. 

There was quantity….
In 1520 Henry VIII met with King Francis 1 of France whose clothing was weighted down with 13,600 buttons — and you can bet that Henry's spies would have reported this in advance and Henry would have been wearing as many buttons, if not more.

And there was quality…
In 1620 the First Duke of Buckingham wore a suit and cloak covered in diamond buttons. Popular artists would paint miniature scenes on buttons, in fact all kinds of artists and craftsmen made all kinds of buttons. 

In the 18th and 19th century button popularity continued to grow, and the period from 1830 to 1850 became known as the Golden Age of buttons. The industrial revolution paved the way for the mass manufacturing of buttons, and more people than ever wore buttons — and lots of them. As a result, England rose to become the premier button making country, overtaking France where buttons were still mostly hand made. 

Uniforms were a place where button-madness ran riot. Napoleon loved buttons and introduced sleeve buttons on tunics. But the English were not far behind and uniforms glittered with rows of fine buttons and braid. Sharpebuttons
Button
In Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe stories, when Sharpe was low in funds, he'd sell one of his silver buttons from his Rifleman's officer's uniform. This is a Rifleman's button with a raised bugle, horn and crown. Both officers and rank and file wore the same buttons but the officers’ buttons were made of silver rather than base metal.

From the mid 19th century onwards, women started to wear buttons, and it became a major craze. Even so, many buttons were for purely for a decorative purpose and much women's clothing was still fastened with hooks and laces. I'm not sure why. I wonder if it was some kind of chastity thing — making it hard for women to undress without assistance.

Introduction10 Even boots were fastened with buttons, often many buttons, and this popularized the buttonhook, which pulled buttons through stiff material such as stiffened jean or leather. Buttonhooks had been used as far back as the 15th and 16th century, but now they became a necessary implement. Button hooks of this era soon became things of beauty and elegance, fashioned from fine material, fit to sit on a lady's dressing table along with her combs and brushes.

There is so much more I could write about buttons, but a blog is supposed to be short. I hope you found it interesting.

So what about you — do you have any button memories or observations? Did you have a button jar? Have any favorite buttons as a kid — or now?